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Ancient Public Games and Sacred Festivals

In all Greek lands there existed, from the earliest times down to the latest, certain uniform customs and common ties which served to bind together the divergent branches of the Hellenic race into one comparatively homogeneous family. Among these the Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games were undoubtedly the most influential bonds of union. These great festivals may be regarded as types of many smaller associations of a similar character, local amphictyonies and koinaκοινα of various districts, partly political and partly religious, common to the inhabitants of one and the same district or to people of homogeneous race.

So long as Greece remained free these common councils and periodical conventions exercised a well-marked political influence and watched over the interests of the various cities which were enrolled as members of the Union, but under the rule of the Romans the political functions of the koinaκοινα ceased to exist, although for purposes of common worship, and as a most valuable means of keeping the subject populations contented in the apparent exercise of their ancient privileges, and happy in the actual performance of their time honored rites and sacrifices and in the enjoyment of frequently recurring splendid festivals, these gatherings were not only permitted, but were looked upon with an approving eye by the Emperor himself.

As a stimulus to trade and as a convenient means of inculcating the Augustan worship the Common Games and Festivals of the Greeks were not only maintained in many places where they already existed, but received still further extension at the hands of the Roman governors and of successive Emperors, under whose direct auspices many new festivals were founded, of which the temples of Roma and Augustus in the numerous metropolitan centers of the various provinces, more especially in Asia Minor, were the chief points of union.

From the frequent mention of the public Games on the coins of the Imperial age struck in Greek cities, it is evident that these recurring periodical festivals created a demand for money in larger quantities than was sufficient at other times. Hence we may safely infer that even in earlier times, before the Roman conquest, a great number of mints were only active in Festival years. On many autonomous coins the types alone are often sufficiently indicative of the Festivals for which the coins were struck, but sometimes the name of the Festival was added, e. g. Acheloio aethlon Αχελοιο αεθλον, Metapontum; Olum Ολυμ. and Chari Χαρι. for the Olympia and the Charitesia (?), Arcadia; Olunpikon Ολυνπικον at Elis and Ithom Ιθωμ. for the Ithomaia at Messene.

On such festive occasions, in Imperial times, when a great concourse of people poured into the city from the surrounding districts and from neighbouring towns, the magistrate whose function it was to arrange the details of the festival (Asiarchaes, archiereus, panaeguriarchaes, agonothetaes Ασιαρχης, αρχιερευς, πανηγυριαρχης, αγονοθετης, etc., by whatever title he may have been called) would, either at his own expense or on behalf of the ordinary municipal magistrates, cause an extra quantity of bronze money to be minted and put into circulation, and the name of the Festival for which the coin was struck would often be inscribed on the reverse.

Most valuable is the information which may be gathered from these outwardly unattractive bronze coins concerning the widespread popularity of the famous Hellenic games, which formed the prototypes of similar local agonistic contests held from time to time in almost every city which could boast of a strain of Hellenic blood, and in many which had little or no claim to do so.

The names of these festivals are frequently identical with those of the first two of the four famous Hellenic contests, the Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean, and in many cases the coins furnish us with the names of the local games celebrated in various parts of the ancient world.

The following list comprises ail the more important Games and Festivals mentioned on the coins. They may be divided into the following groups:—

I. Festivals named after the first two of the four great Hellenic Games

(α) Olympian.
(β) Pythian.
(γ) Isthmian.
(δ) Nemean.

To these must be added—

(ε) The Actian Games, as restored by Augustus, and
(ζ) The Capitoline Games as established by Domitian, both of which were placed on an equality with the four chief Greek Festivals.

II. Festivals called after other Greek divinities, e.g. Asklepeia, Dionysia, Helia, Herakleia, Heraea, Koraea, Letoeia, Panathenaea, and many others.

III. Festivals called after Alexander the Great, Attalus, etc., as well as the Augustan and other Games named after Roman Emperors.

IV. Common Games or District Festivals, as Koina Asias, Koina Kilikias Κοινα Ασιας, Κοινα Κιλικιας, etc., celebrated in each province or smaller district at various cities probably in rotation. These koinaκοινα were under the direction of the Asiarch or Archiereus, the Bithyniarch, the Cilicarch, etc., who presided over the Koinobetaoulion Κοινοβεταουλιον of the Union.

V. Games distinguished by names descriptive of their nature, conditions, or places of celebration, or by vague titles merely expressive of their importance. In most cases the Festivals bore high-sounding double or triple titles, so that in point of fact we can hardly say to which of the above groups they properly belong: thus the Games called Olympia Augusteia Pythia might be assigned to either the first or third group.

The Greater Games.

(α) ΟΛΥΜΡΙΑ. The famous Olympian Games in honors of the Olympian Zeus were celebrated at Pisa in Elis every fifth year in the month of July. In Imperial times quinquennial Festivals modelled on the Olympia were held at numerous cities, and are frequently distinguished by additional titles defining the contests, etc., e.g. Olumpia Ολυμπια combined with ιερα Πυθια, Αυγουστεια Πυθια, Σεβασμια, οικουμενικα, ‘Αλεξανδρεια, ‘Ηρακλεια, Σευηρεια, επινεικια, etc.

(β) ΠΥΘΙΑ. The Pythian Games were, after the Olympian, the greatest in importance of the four chief Hellenic festivals. They were held at Delphi in the third year of each Olympiad in the month of January.

In Imperial times many cities assimilated their contests to those of the Pythian festival, or at any rate called them by the same name, frequently with the addition of other more distinctive titles, e.g. Puthia Πυθια combined with ‘Ακτια, ‘Ακτια ‘Αντωνεια, ‘Αλεξανδρεια, Διονυσια, ‘Ηλια, Καβειρια, Κενδρεισεια, Αητωεια, ‘Ολυμπια, ‘Ολυμπια Αυγουστεια, Πανιωνια, ‘Ιερος μυστικος οικουμενικος, ‘Ηρακλεια, etc.

Compound titles such as Olumpia PuthiaΟλυμπια Πυθια or Aktia PuthiaΑκτια Πυθια may possibly mean that the games bearing such names comprised contests borrowed from each of those festivals (cf. Isoputhia Ισοπυθια, infra), or that, like their prototypes, they were pentaeteric games.

(γ) ΙΣΘΜΙΑ. The Isthmian Games in honor of Ino and Melikertes were celebrated at Corinth every two years (the first and third of each Olympiad), in spring and summer alternately, so as not to clash with the Olympian or Pythian. There is no evidence on coins for the celebration of Isthmian games elsewhere than at Corinth.

(δ) ΝΕΜΕΙΑ. The Nemean Games were held at Cleonae, and later at Argos, every two years (the second and fourth in each Olympiad), in winter and summer alternately. Argos is the only city on whose coins this festival is mentioned, sometimes as Nemeia and sometimes in combination with the Heraean games as Nemeia Hraia Νεμεια Ηραια.

(ε) ΑΚΤΙΑ. Games in honor of the Actian Apollo celebrated on the promontory of Anactorium. This festival was restored with great splendor by Augustus at Nicopolis, founded in commemoration of the battle of Actium. These quinquennial games were placed on the same footing as the Olympian, and like them were the model of games named after them instituted at a large number of cities, principally in Asia Minor and the East, usually with the addition of other titles, such as Καισαρηα, Αυγουστεια, Κομοδεια, Πυθια ‘Αντωνινεια, Πυθια Φιλαδελφεια, Δουσαρια, Κοραια, ‘Ολυμπια, ‘Ηρακλεια, &c.

(ζ) ΚΑΠΕΤΩΛΙΑ. The Ludi Capitolini in honor of Jupiter Capitolinus were first constituted by Furius Camillus, and at a later period restored by Domitian and placed, like the Actian, on an equality with the national Hellenic festivals, and, together with the cult of Jupiter Capitolinus, established in various eastern provinces as Kapetolia Καπετολια, or Kapetolia Puthia Καπετολια Πυθια at Aphrodisias, and Certamina sacra Capitolina oecumenica iselastica at Heliopolis.

Games in honor of various other Divinities.

ΑΣΚΛΗΠΕΙΑ, in honor of Asklepios, celebrated at Cleonae, Epidaurus, Nicaea, Philadelpheia, Laodiceia Phr., etc.; also with the epithet SotaereiaΣοτηρεια at Ancyra Gal., and, according to inscriptions, at many other cities.

ΑΧΕΛΟΙΟΑΕΘΛΟΝ. Games in honor of the River-god Acheloös. Archaic coin of Metapontum.


ΔΗΜΗΤΡΙΑ, in honor of Demeter at Nicomedia and Tarsus.

ΔΙΔΥΜΕΙΑ, in honor of Apollo Didymeus at Miletus, with the epithet Komodeia Κομοδεια.

ΔΙΟΝΥΣΙΑ, in honor of Dionysos at Nicaea with epithet Puthia Πυθια, and at Adana with ιερα οικουμενικα.

ΔΟΥΣΑΡΙΑ and Aktia Dousaria Ακτια Δουσαρια, in honor of Dusares the Arabian Dionysos, at Bostra and Adraa.

ΕΝΜΟΝΙΔΕΙΑ or ΕΜΜΟΝΙΑΣΙΑ. Signification doubtful. Magnesia ad Sipylum. See ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΕΙΑ and ΑΔΡΙΑΝΑ, infra.

ΕΦΕΣΙΑ, in honor of the Ephesian Artemis. Hierapolis and Ephesus.

ΗΛΙΑ or Hlia Puthia Ηλια Πυθια, in honor of Helios. Emisa.

ΗΡΑΙΑ or Nemeia ‘Hraia Νεμεια ‘Ηραια, in honor of Hera. Argos.

ΗΡΑΚΛΕΙΑ with title Puthia Πυθια, Perinthus; with Olumpia Ολυμπια or with Aktia Ακτια, Tyre.

ΘΕΟΓΑΜΙΑ with oikoumenika, οικουμενικα, in honor of the marriage of Hades and Persephone. Nysa.

ΚΑΒΙΡΕΙΑ, in honor of the Kabeiri, Kabireia Puthia Καβιρεια Πυθια. Thessalonica.

ΚΕΝΔΡΕΙΣΕΙΑ or ΚΕΝΔΡΕΣΙΑ, in honor of the Thracian god Kendrisos; Kendreiseia Puthia Κενδρεισεια Πυθια, Philippopolis.

ΚΟΡΑΙΑ, in honor of Persephone, Tarsus; Koraia Aktia Κοραια Ακτια, and Koraeia Aktia Κορηια Ακτια, Sardes. See also infra ΧΡΥΣΑΝΘΙΝΑ.

ΚΥΠΑΡΙΣΣΙΑ, in honor of Artemis. Lacedaemon.

ΛΗΤΩΕΙΑ, in honor of Leto, sometimes with Puthia. Tripolis Lyd.

ΛΥΚΑΙΑ, in honor of Zeus Lykaeos. Megalopolis.

ΝΥΜΦΙΑ, in honor of local nymphs, Sebaeria Numphia Σεβηρια Νυμφια. Anchialus.

ΠΑΝΑΘΗΝΕΑ. The famous Athenian quinquennial festival. Athens, time of Gordian; also Synnada, of the same period, with title Adriania Αδριανια.

ΠΑΝΕΛΛΗΝΙΑ. A festival founded by Hadrian at Athens on the completion of the temple of Zeus Panhellenios. Athens, time of Gordian.

ΣΩΤΗΡΕΙΑ, see ΑΣΚΛΗΠΕΙΑ supra. Ancyra Gal.

ΤΥΡΙΜΝΕΙΑ, in honor of Apollo Tyrimnaeos at Thyatira.

ΧΡΥΣΑΝΘΙΝΑ, ΧΡΥΣΑΝΘΕΙΑ, and ΧΡΥΣΑΝΤΙΝΑ. Local games at Sardes named after the Argive woman Chrysanthis, who, when Demeter was in search of her lost daughter, told her of her rape by Hades. The type of the Rape of Persephone is so common on Sardian coins that we may safely infer that the games Koraia AktiaΚοραια Ακτια and ChrusanthinaΧρυσανθινα are connected, and it is possible that a wreath of golden flowers may have been given in the latter. With the games ChrusanthinaΧρυσανθινα cf. also the name of the neoplatonic and mystic philosopher Chrysanthios of Sardes, who, with his wife, was appointed archiereus taes Ludias αρχιερευς της Λυδιας by the emperor Julian. As this office was often hereditary in certain wealthy families, one of his priestly ancestors at Sardes may well have been given this name from that of the games provided perhaps at his expense.

Festivals in honor of Kings and Emperors. Chiefly on coins of late Imperial times.

ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΕΙΑ, in honor of Alexander the Great, probably first celebrated at Beroea in Macedon under Gordian III as Olumpia Alexandria Ολυμπια Αλεξανδρια; Alexandreia Αλεξανδρεια, Byzantium; Alexandreia Puthia Αλεξανδρεια Πυθια, Philippopolis; Αδριανα Αλεξανδρεια Ενμονιδεια, Magnesia ad Sipylum, Severus Alexander.

ΑΤΤΑΛΗΑ, in honor of Attalus II Philadelphus, Γορδιανηα ‘Ατταληα, Aphrodisias.

ΚΑΙΣΑΡΕΙΑ, ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΕΙΑ, ΣΕΒΑΣΜΙΑ, ΣΕΒΑΣΤΑ, &c. Ακτια Καισαρεα, Tyre; Sebasta KaisareaΣεβαστα Καισαρεα, Metropolis Ion.; Αυγουστεια Ακτια, Ολυμπια Αυγουστεια Πυθια, Αυγουστεια αριστα, Μεγαλα Αυγουστεια αριστα, Ολυμπια Αυγουστεια Πυθια, Αυγουστεια Σεβασμια or Σεβαστα, Αυγουστεια Σευηρια, Αυγουστεια και Φιλαδελφια, Σεβασμια Ολυμπια, Αγια ιερα Σεβασμια, &c. Games celebrated in connexion with the Augustan worship at very many cities. Cf. Suetonius, Aug. c. 58 ‘(Augusto Caesari) provinciarum pleraeque super templa et aras ludos quoque quinquennales paene oppidatim constituerunt'.

ΣΕΒΑΣΤΑ ΟΜΟΒΩΜΙΑ. These games are mentioned only on coins of Cadi, Elagabalus and Trebonianus Gallus. The word omobomia ομοβομια beneath an agonistic table points to the union at Cadi of the Augustan worship with that of some other divinity, or possibly of the Capitoline Triad; cf. coin of Trebonianus Gallus with this type and the same Magistrate’s name.

ΑΔΡΙΑΝΑ, ΑΔΡΙΑΝΕΙΑ. Games in honor of Hadrian. AdrianeiaΑδριανεια, Athens, Tarsus; Augousteia Puthia Adrianeia OlumpiaΑυγουστεια Πυθια Αδριανεια Ολυμπια, Thyatira; Αδριανα Αντονεια Ενμονιδεια, Magnesia ad Sipylum; Adriana PanathaenaiaΑδριανα Παναθηναια, Synnada; Adrianios Oikoumenikos Αδριανιος οικουμενικος, Anazarbus, etc.

ΑΝΤΩΝΕΙΑ, ΑΝΤΩΝΕΙΝΙΑ, ΑΝΤΩΝ ΙΝ ΙΑΝ Α, ΑΓΩΝ ΑΝΤΩΝΙΝΙΑΝΟΣ, in honour of the various emperors who bore the name of Antoninus. Sometimes with additional titles as Sebasta, Aktia, Puthia, Auraelia, Ko-Σεβαστα, Ακτια, Πυθια, Αυρηλια, Κοmodeia, Daemaetriaμοδεια, Δημητρια; Αντων[ινιαν]α πρωτα της οικουμενης επινεικια, Anazarbus, Julia Maesa. Various cities.

ΚΟΜΟΔΕΙΑ, in honor of Commodus. Κομοδειος, Ακτια Κομοδεια, Αντωνεινια Κομοδεια, Διδυμεια Κομοδεια, Κομοδειος οικουμενικος, &c. Nicaea, Miletus, Tarsus, Tyre, etc.

ΣΕΥΗΡΕΙΑ, in honor of Sept. Severus. Σευηρεια πρωτα, Σευηρια μεγαλα, Σεβηρεια, Σεουηρεια, Σεουηρια Νυμφια. Perinthus, Nicaea, Tarsus, and other cities. See also ΦΙΛΑΔΕΛΦΕΙΑ, &c.

ΦΙΛΑΔΕΛΦΕΙΑ, in honor of the brothers Caracalla and Geta. Φιλαδελφεια Πυθια, Ακτια Πυθια Φιλαδελφια, Αυγουστια και Φιλαδελφια, Σευηρια Φιλαδελφια, Κοινος Σευηριος Φιλαδελφιος. Perinthus, Nicaea, Sardes, Eumeneia, etc.

ΓΟΡΔΙΑΝΗΑ. Games held at Aphrodisias in honour of Gordian III and in commemoration of Attalus II, king of Pergamum. Γορδιανηα Πυθια, Γορδιανηα Ατταληα Καπιτολια.

ΔΕΚΙΟΣ ΟΙΚΟΥΜΕΝΙΚΟΣ. Games in honor of Trajan Decius. Anazarbus.

ΟΥΑΛΕΡΙΑΝΑ, in honor of Valerian, Nicaea; also Γορδιανηα Ουαλεριανα οικουμενικα, Aphrodisias.

ΓΑΛΛΙΗΝΑ, in honor of Gallienus. Nicaea.

ΤΑΚΙΤΙΟΣ ΜΗΤΡΟΠΟΛΕΙΤΙΟΣ, ΚΑΙΣΑΡΙΑ (?), in honor of the Emperor Tacitus, A. D. 270. Perga.

Common Games and District Festivals.

ΚΟΙΝΑ, or Koinos Κοινος. The Festival held on the occasions of the meetings of the Provincial Council, Koinoboulion Κοινοβουλιον, e. g. Κοινον Μακεδονον, Κοινον Ασιας, and many others. Thus coins reading koina Asiasκοινα Ασιας or προτα κοινα Asias were issued in the Province of Asia by turns at Ephesus, Sardes, Hierapolis Phr., Laodiceia, &c., wherever the Provincial Diet happened to be held. There were also smaller Koina Κοινα confined to groups of neighbouring cities, such as the Panionian Koinon Κοινον of thirteen cities (p. 566), or even Koina Κοινα of only two cities (p. 676), united for the purpose of celebrating certain festivals in common. In some cases the word Koinon Κοινον seems to imply no more than omonoia. ομονοια.

ΟΙΚΟΥΜΕΝΙΚΑ. Public games in which the contests were open to all comers. Οικουμενικος, Ιερα οικουμενικα, Ιερος Ολυμπιος οικουμενικος, Ολυμπια Οικουμενικα, Θεογαμια Ολκουμενικα, Αδριανος Ολκουμενικος, Κομοδειος οικουμενικος, Γορδιανηα Ουαλεριανα Ολκουμενικα Δεκιος οικουμενικος. Certamen sacrum Capitolinum oecumenicum iselasticum, Certamen sacrum periodicum oecumenicum iselasticum, etc.

ΠΑΝΙΩΝΙΑ, Panionia Puthia Πανιονια Πυθια—Games held at the meetings of the Panionian Κοινον of thirteen cities (p. 566).


Games distinguished by epithets indicative of the locality or conditions of their celebration,
the kind of prizes offered, or by titles proclaiming their nature or importance.

ΑΓΩΝΕΣ ΙΕΡΟΙ, Ieros agon, IeraΙερος αγον, Ιερα, etc. Sacred Games. An epithet of very general application, though perhaps originally limited to games held in connexion with some sacred enclosure, or in honour of some divinity.

ΑΡΙΣΤΑ. A superlative epithet applied to festivals celebrated with great magnificence, see supra under ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΕΙΑ.

ΑΣΥΛΙΑ, Asulia ieros, Puthia asulia ierosΑσυλια ιερος, Πυθια ασυλια ιερος—Games celebrated in connexion with a temple or city enjoying the right of asuliaασυλια, e.g. the temple of Artemis Pergaia.

DONATIO, DONATIO SACRVM CERTAMEN, DONATIO IEROS (sic). A festival provided by the munificence of a public benefactor. Cremna.

ΔΩΡΕΑ, when applied to Games, has a similar signification. Side.

ΕΙΣΕΛΑΣΤΙΚΑ. Contests in which the victor was authorized by the Emperor, on his return to his native city, to make his entry, eiselaunein εισελαυνειν, in a triumphal quadriga through a breach made for the occasion in the city wall, and entitled thenceforth to a daily dole either of food or of money, opsonion οψωνιον. Various agones αγονες were established as is elastic by different emperors, but the privilege might be arbitrarily withdrawn or transferred to other contests. See Pliny's Letter to Trajan and Trajan’s rescript (x. 118, 119). The epithet occurs on coins of Side, Anazarbus, Heliopolis, Sidon, etc.

ΕΠΑΡXΙΚΑ(?) or Koinos ton trion eparcheion. Κοινος των τριων επαρχειων. The common games of the three eparchies of Cilicia, but see under Eparchikos Επαρχικος. Tarsus.

ΕΠΙΝΕΙΚΙΑ, Epineikios Επινεικιος. Triumphal Games in commemoration of victories. Laodiceia Phr., Tarsus. Kabireia epineikia Καβιρεια επινεικια, Thessalonica. Επινεικια Σευηρεια Ολυμπια εν Κοδριγαις οροις Κιλικον, Games held at a place called Kodrigai Κοδριγαι on the borders of Cilicia probably in celebration of the victory of Severus over Pescennius Niger in A.D. 194.

ΘΕΜΙΔΕΣ. Games in which the prize consisted of a sum of money, Thema Θεμα, celebrated at various Pamphylian and Cilician cities.

ΙΣΟΠΥΘΙΑ. An epithet applied to games claiming to be equal to the Pythian or of which the contests were ordered in the same manner. Ancyra Gal.

ΜΕΓΑΛΑ. An epithet applied like apistaαπιστα to festivals of special importance. Nicaea. See supra under ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΕΙΑ.

ΜΥΣΤΙΚΑ. Games held in connexion with certain Mysteries, e. g. Ιερος Πυθιος μυστικος οικουμενικος. Side. ΝΑΥΜΑ[XΙΑ]. Contests of ships. Gadara in Decapolis. Cf. also autonomous coins of Corcyra of the third century B.C.

ΠΕΡΙΟΔΙΚΑ. Games recurring at fixed periods. Nikan taen periodon was a phrase applied to one who had borne off the prize at each of the four great public games. Hence periodos περιοδος came to mean also the period of time between one celebration of the games and the next, and so games recurring after an interval of years were termed Periodica, as the Certamina sacra periodica oecumenica iselastica at Sidon.

ΠΡΩΤΑ. An epithet applied to various games held at cities claiming the title protae πρωτη, e.g. Prota koina Asias Πρωτα κοινα Ασιας at Smyrna, the ‘first city’ of the Province of Asia. Sometimes protaπρωτα was used in a more general sense for games of the highest importance, as Antoniniana prota taes oikoumenaes Αντωνινιανα πρωτα της οικουμενης. Anazarbus.

ΣΥΝΘΥΣΙΑ ΟΙΚΟΥΜΕΝΗΣ. Anazarbus. I do not know whether the name of this festival has any special signification beyond that of an occumenic gathering at which sacrifice to the Emperor was offered in accordance with the common ritual of the Augustan worship.

ΧΡΥΣΟΡΟΑΙ, ta para toτα παρα τω. Games named after the river Chrysoroas, on whose banks they were held. Hierapolis Phr.